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Brandon Board eyes restructuring elementary schools, teacher lay-offs



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Children play at Belle Ann Elementary. Photo by Patrick McAbee. (click for larger version)
April 25, 2012 - Brandon Twp.- The school board is exploring two plans that would dramatically change the three elementary schools in the district and may reduce the overall number of teacher lay-offs that are coming.

Currently, kindergarten through fourth grade students are educated in Belle Ann, Harvey Swanson and Oakwood. Under the two options being considered, however, that could change to just kindergarten through second grade at Belle Ann and Oakwood, or, all kindergarten classes taught at Belle Ann, and all first and second grade classes taught at Oakwood. In both options, third and fourth grades would be taught at Harvey Swanson. Fifth and sixth grades, also considered elementary level, would remain at the Brandon Fletcher Intermediate School.

"Options for the elementary is exactly what I have been asking for— options to reduce expenses," said School Board President Kevin McClellan. "There is a little additional cost for busing, but the savings for teacher reductions far outweighs it and we would maintain class size ratios... These are some options to change some things and see what happens."

The district is facing a $1.4 million deficit for the 2012-2013 budget, which must be balanced by June 30. During a finance committee meeting April 24, Superintendent Lorrie McMahon presented the full school board with options to reconfigure the grade structure of the three elementaries. The options are attractive because they would reduce the number of teachers at the elementaries and intermediate school by six or seven, depending on which option is chosen, resulting in a savings of $390,000 to $455,000 annually, based on a cost of $65,000 per teacher.

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Even though fifth and sixth grades will stay the same at the intermediate school, a reduction of one teacher in each grade there will be included in the elementary reconfiguration options.

While the options would reduce teachers, they would more evenly distribute students in classes and keep academics intact.

"What we are trying to do in these difficult economic times with continued funding cuts from Lansing is find ways to both benefit the education of students and reduce costs," said Assistant Superitendent Carole Beverwyk. "It's easier to more readily balance the class sizes and need fewer sections when they are all in one building."

Possible drawbacks to the plan include a change in school identity, said McMahon, "as the sense of a neighborhood school becomes different."

While Beverwyk said there are benefits to the current structure, with a wider range of children attending school together, she noted that one of the options still keeps three different grades (K-2) together, and currently, the intermediate and middle schools have only two grades each. McMahon added that the new concept would have students staying together as a group all the way from Kindergarten through 12th grade.

McClellan acknowledged that there are concerns about kids changing schools often, as well as logistics issues for parents having multiple children in different schools.

Overall, Beverwyk and McMahon believe it would be a positive move and will research to bring more information before the board at a special meeting planned for 6:30 p.m., May 10, at the central district office, 1025 S. Ortonville Road.

The options could reduce the impact of lay-offs that McMahon said are unavoidable and coming at the May 14 regular board meeting.

"We expect to lay off 25 teachers," she said, adding that this is the biggest lay-off the district has seen in years. "The financial state of education has required this. We've had a severe reduction in revenues and state-mandated increase in costs. The retirement system is a big part of it and the employees have no control over it and neither do we."

A reduction plan that was also presented at the finance committee meeting showed that a layoff of 21.5 teachers at $65,000 each would save the district $1,397,500. However, this would leave class sizes at grades 7-12 at 35-plus students each. Other possible reductions that could keep teacher positions include privatization of custodians with a savings of $200,000, equating to 3.1 teachers; transportation privatization saving $150,000, or 2.3 teachers; and reduction of the general operating budget by 10 percent, saving $464,000 or 7.1 teachers.

"If we are able to, we will call back teachers this summer," said McMahon. "We won't recall everyone. If we put other things into the picture and make other reductions, we might be able to call back some teachers. These are not good choices. Reduction of the general operating budget would be cuts to classroom supplies, materials, overtime... Honestly, I don't know where that would come from, because we've already cut back so much."

Administrators are continuing to negotiate with all employee groups. Wages and benefits comprise roughtly 85 percent of the total district budget and all employees, union and non-union have been asked for concessions in recent contracts— in both salary and benefits. At the finance committee meeting, a 5 percent wage reduction for administrators, as well as insurance reductions, were briefly discussed.

"We're asking for something from everybody," said McClellan. "In an ideal world, all groups come to the numbers we have to have and everyone keeps their jobs. That's not reality, although I would like it to be. It's a tough situation, I understand the passion in the community for how this affects local constituents. Hopefully they are putting as much pressure on Lansing as they are on us."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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